Rich Howells

‘The Polka King’ starring Jack Black as Hazleton con man premieres on Netflix on Jan. 12

‘The Polka King’ starring Jack Black as Hazleton con man premieres on Netflix on Jan. 12
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Since its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22, moviegoers in Northeastern Pennsylvania have been anxiously waiting for a release date for the new comedic drama “The Polka King,” which is forgoing a traditional theatrical release by becoming a Netflix exclusive.

The reason so many locals are looking forward to the movie is because comedian, actor, and musician Jack Black is playing real-life Hazleton polka legend Jan “Lewan” Lewandowski, who is just as famous for his music as he is for being a convicted con man. After generating substantial buzz and a press tour that included Lewandowski himself attending the premiere and joining Black on stage, Netflix purchased the rights to the film in June but didn’t announce until yesterday that it would finally be released on the streaming platform on Friday, Jan. 12.

The bizarre true story of the Polish immigrant who rose to fame as a polka musician in Hazleton and fell after scamming his fans out of $5 million was first told in the 2009 documentary “The Man Who Would Be Polka King” by Waverly native John Mikulak and Joshua von Brown; this film shared that title but was later shortened to simply “The Polka King.” As the official description says:

“This exuberant tragicomedy recounts the remarkable but true story of the rise and fall of Polish émigré Jan Lewan (Jack Black), from striving tchotchke shop owner in the ’70s to the undisputed ‘King of Pennsylvania Polka’ in the early ’90s. Lewan pursued the American Dream by any means necessary, fleecing investors and bribing officials to build a personal musical empire in what became the world’s only known Polka Ponzi scheme. Swept up by Lewan’s charismatic charm are his devoted wife, Marla (Jenny Slate), and his neurotic sidekick, Mickey (Jason Schwartzman).”

The original documentary will also be added to Netflix on Jan. 12, so those who never saw it can play a double feature that weekend and compare the real Polka King to his Hollywood counterpart.

“I had the advantage of this amazing documentary that I could watch over and over again and study and watch the real Jan Lewan do his thing. And there’s tons of YouTube videos of Jan. And I went down long, long wormholes of YouTube polka musicians, which I highly recommend. There’s some insane musicianship in the lost art known as polka,” Black said during a Q&A at the premiere earlier this year. “I was born to do it.”

While there is no official trailer online yet, Lakeshore Records has posted a song on Nerdist from the official soundtrack that will be released digitally on Friday, Jan. 5 and physically on Jan. 12, with a vinyl release coming later. The album is a 14-track collection of classic polka songs reimagined by the Jack Black Polka Band, which features members of the actual Jan Lewan Orchestra and other famous polka players. Stream “Everybody Polka Polka” below:

Jason Schwartzman, who plays Lewan’s bandmate and best friend Mickey, a fictional character who was made up for the film as a combination of several real-life people, noted during the Sundance premiere that, while the other actors faked playing their instruments, Black really did sing live, with a few exceptions, every day on set, which probably came easy to him after years of performing in Tenacious D.

“We recorded the entire album, the whole soundtrack album, in two days in New York right before we started filming, and it just fell into place. Jan was there, and it was kind of magic. I had a blast,” Black said, joking in a mock Polish accent, “You can get whole soundtrack album! $19.95!”

Early reviews have been favorable so far. While some felt that it portrayed Lewandowski a bit too positively, not focusing enough on his dark side and how his crimes affected his victims, most agree that Black did an exceptional job with the role and carried the film overall.

Mikulak also attended the premiere and thoroughly enjoyed seeing his documentary become a major Hollywood production.

“I really liked it. Jack Black and Jenny Slate were amazing, and the rest of the cast was stellar,” Mikulak told NEPA Scene in January. “I think it’s a real crowd-pleaser and should do really well.”

Listen to Mikulak talk about his documentary in Episode 32 of the NEPA Scene Podcast, starting at the 1-hour, 32-minute mark: